finem respice

An Open Letter to Dr. Janet Rosenbaum

Submitted by ep on Wed, 12/19/2012 - 09:45

Dr. Rosembaum: It appears today that your efforts to publicize your research ("Gun Utopias? Firearm Access and Ownership in Israel and Switzerland," Journal of Public Health Policy 33, p. 47 (2012)) have accelerated. The most recent showcase for your paper and the concepts that underlie it happens to be Foreign Policy ("A League of Our Own," Foreign Policy (December 19, 2012)) but Ezra Klein showcased your research in an interview for his Washington-Post sponsored Wonkblog some days before ("Mythbusting: Israel and Switzerland are not gun-toting utopias," Wonkblog (December 14, 2012)). It is unfortunate then that the body of your research on Switzerland can only be described as "shoddy," at best. At worst it appears more like raw academic fraud.

Here in Switzerland we resent being pressed into forced labor in the salt mines of America's rapidly devolving culture wars, but this would be somewhat easier service to tolerate if your representation of Swiss law, statistics on firearms related deaths and homicides in Switzerland, and Swiss culture were remotely accurate. They are not. Not even close.

Moreover, it is the considered opinion of finem respice that you know it.

By your own admission your conclusions about Swiss firearms law are based on your own translation of the French and German versions of the "Bundesgesetz über Waffen, Waffenzubehör und Munition" ("Swiss Federal Law on Weapons, Weapon Accessories and Ammunition"), which your research cites repeatedly. Based on the conclusions you arrive at in your research it seems apparent that your foreign language skills leave much to be desired.

Almost nothing at all that you claim as fact about Swiss firearms law is true. Literally, no material point you have been making in public (3 month permit renewals, proof of "need" requirements to purchase firearms) in support of the premise that Swiss firearms regulation is "strict gun control" is correct.

Your command of Swiss gun violence statistics are equally flawed.

In fact, Swiss gun homicides stood at 0.2389 per 100,000 residents in 2010. This figure is among the lowest in the world. In Europe it is effectively indistinguishable from the rates in France and Denmark, and lower than Finland, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Greece, and Luxembourg.

Luxembourg is a particularly interesting case, being small and culturally fairly homogenous (as Switzerland). But there the similarities end. Luxembourg ranks 147th out of 178 countries for the rate of private gun ownership in the Small Arms Survey of 2007 (which you cite repeatedly in your research as an authority and which ranks Switzerland 3rd of 178 countries in the very same chart). Moreover, despite your flawed understanding of Swiss gun law, gun control measures in Luxembourg are generally stricter than Switzerland. This is true of most if not all EU members, as they have generally aggressively implemented the European Council Directive on "Control of the Acquisition and Possession of Weapons" from 1991.

Italy is also an interesting case with victims of homicide by firearm per 100,000 residents of 0.36 in 2009 (the latest year for which figures are available from the World Health Organization's "European Detailed Mortality Database"). That was almost 17% higher than Switzerland that year and is 33.6% higher than Switzerland's current rate. And where does Italy rank in rate of firearms ownership? 55th of 178 countries according to the same Small Arms Survey data from 2007.

In fact, despite your absurd claims that ownership of firearms in Switzerland is "rare," the same data shows that Swiss civilians are better armed than the populations of Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Kosovo, Angola, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Libya, Mexico, Guatemala, South Africa, Pakistan, Jordan, Brazil, Nicaragua, Iran, El Salvador, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Laos, Chad, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. Perhaps now is a good moment to remind you once again that you cite the same report from which these figures are drawn repeatedly in your research?

Of course, it is habit among lazy scholars to attribute high rates of private ownership of firearms in Switzerland to the "militia." Unfortunately for those who argue this point, it is demonstrably false.

Admittedly, it is often difficult to get a handle on the total number of privately held firearms in Switzerland. This is because not all firearms have to be registered here.

Still, back in 2011 to inform citizens on the facts regarding firearms in Switzerland for the upcoming referendum, the Bundesamt für Statistik (The Swiss Federal Statistics Agency) published a series of figures on firearms, firearms deaths, and firearms violence. The agency estimated the total number of privately held firearms at 2,000,000 (though your source, the Small Arms Survey of 2007 cites the higher figure of 3,500,000 for its main calculations and suggests that figure might even be as high as 4,500,000). Of these:

Around 260,000 firearms are select-fire Sturmgewehr 90s (the "SIG 550" in the civilian market) held by members of the Swiss armed forces in connection with their current military service obligations. This is between 7.43% (using your source, the Small Arms Survey of 2007) and 13% (using the Bundesamt für Statistik estimates). If one takes the high end of the Small Arms Survey of 2007 the figure sinks to 5.78% of the total. In short, firearms ownership owing to current militia service is a small fraction of total firearms in private hands in Switzerland.

These are not secret figures by any means. One need only know how to download a spreadsheet from the official Bundesamt für Statistik site (although that would require a working knowledge of German or French, or the effort to walk to your local linguistics department and ask for a translation) or download the Small Arms Survey report from 2007 (which you obviously already had access to as it is cited in your work).

In the case of the former, the crime reports and population counts in Switzerland going back 10 years or more are readily available. These form the basis of the statistics cited here and should have influenced your research, though perhaps you would not have been able to talk Foreign Policy into giving you a four-page spread with the boring conclusions vis-a-vis Switzerland that would have resulted.

On reflection, so contorting are the intellectual acrobatics you go through to avoid these facts it becomes difficult to see anything other than academic malfeasance in support of advocacy (rather than science) at work here. But mere data cherry-picking is not the limit of the flaws in your arguments.

Many "scholars" in this area like to conflate "gun violence" with "deaths by firearm." You have been no exception. In fact, there is a strong argument that you have been among the worst offenders in this regard over the last 10 days. So let's look at total firearms related deaths in Switzerland, shall we?

At 3.0297 per 100,000 residents in 2010, total firearms related deaths in Switzerland ranks somewhat higher with respect to her peers. These figures are the sum of accidents and suicides, however. Using them as indicators of "gun violence" is to torture the definition of that term beyond recognition. Even this higher rate is, however, on par with France, and below Finland, and Canada.

Resorting again to the Bundesamt für Statistik we find that suicides account for a large part of these figures, but suicide by firearm is small as a percentage of total suicides. One of the effects of having a very low level of overall fatalities not due to natural causes is that small figures have big effects on ratios and percentages.

For the last five years total suicides by firearm have ranged from a high of 264 (in 2007) to a low of 222 (in 2010) or between 18.2% and 22.9% of the total. As a method, "hanging" beats firearms by several percentage points every year, "poisoning" exceeded firearms by as much as 12 percentage points from 2002 to 2009 (when assisted suicide figures were removed from the totals- the Swiss do not generally consider these "crime" figures, you understand) and alternates as the higher figure with "other methods" in the last five years.

As a policy matter, even if you cut suicides by firearm in Switzerland by 25% and assumed that those prevented never resorted to other methods (a highly dubious assumption) you are only talking about 55-65 suicides per year. You have to format excel to show six decimal places to see that this is 0.000062% of the population of Switzerland.

Perhaps this is a Swiss attitude, but curtailing the rights of nearly 9 million residents to prevent 0.000062% of the population from voluntarily ending their own lives seems slightly excessive.

Finally, there is the matter of your gross misrepresentation of trends in Swiss gun control, which you have repeatedly alleged is on the rise, or that Switzerland is "moving towards" greater control, whatever that means. Here your conduct has been so egregious it becomes difficult to believe that major American Universities have played host to your activities.

Any serious scholar of Swiss firearms policy would have known that in 2011 the Swiss held a popular referendum calling for more gun control, supported in large measure by the same organizations which pressed the Switzerland to join the European Union (a bullet Switzerland thankfully dodged). The gun-control measure was thoroughly trounced.

Switzerland requires referendums to pass both the popular vote by a majority and also carry a majority of the kantons. The referendum lost the popular vote by 12.6 points and carried only 35% of the kantonal electoral votes. Contrary to your absurd suggestions, gun control advocates have been oddly silent in Switzerland since the referendum.

Yesterday, finem respice called for you to retract your paper and publicly correct your flawed representations of Swiss firearms law, and firearm homicide and death rates in Switzerland. Now that you have been made aware of the real and material flaws in the body of your research that pertains to Switzerland it would be difficult to regard as anything other than academic dishonesty a refusal by you to publicly correct your position. Accordingly, and as finem respice indicated yesterday, if such a correction and retraction is not forthcoming within 10 days finem respice will formally submit its findings in support of charges of academic dishonesty to the University of Maryland, the institution you were affiliated with when the instant research was conducted, the State University of New York, where you are currently an Assistant Professor, and the Journal of Public Health Policy, which published your flawed study.

Of course, finem respice awaits your prompt and comprehensive reply.

[Art Credit: unknown artist "untitled," photograph (unknown date), from the author's private collection. A long history, indeed.]

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